The senior leaders instruct and mentor the junior leaders in activities that they prepare themselves
In 2007, at the height of the rockets being fired on Sderot, Herb Levine, then 63 years old and the director of youth at risk in Alfei Menashe, traveled to Sderot with the intent of doing something meaningful to help the embattled, traumatized city.
Herb had a plan ... to enable Sderot teens to travel to Bergen County, New Jersey, and join an existing three-week program called Open Hearts Open Homes (OHOH), a program of which Herb was the Israel coordinator. It had been running for seven years for teens whose families had been victims of terror in the second Intifada.
The organizers of Open Hearts agreed that every Sderot child was a victim of terror. Five Sderot eighth - graders, who had never travelled very far from Sderot, were selected. They had the time of their life. Since then, over the past eight years more than 80 Sderot teens have participated.
One of the youngsters in the first group, Sahar Ziv, returned from the US with the desire to do something that would impact on his community. Along with other kids from the trip and some friends, they founded the Sderot Young Leaders (SYL). Sahar and his friends understood that if they waited passively for things to change, it would never happen, and that they must take action, create and independently manage an organization with the goal of improving themselves, inspiring other teens to improve themselves and to volunteer within their own community. Their motto was "Catalyzing Community Change".
Sahar led the group throughout high school. He, and the many leaders who followed him, demonstrated the same persistence and determination, as well as exceptional organizational ability as that which enabled the SYL to sustain itself, despite no institutional support.
Making self- improvement fun.
Sahar graduated first in his class, was chosen as the outstanding youth volunteer in Israel, and is now a captain in Israel's most elite intelligence unit.
Many SYL and OHOH alumni have attained impressive achievements in Zahal and academically. In recent years, some of the outstanding leaders were accepted in highly regarded pre-military preps - a first for Sderot.
This year the SYL has more than forty active members specializing in two areas - computers and English proficiency. The computer department meets twice each week. On the one day they upgrade and repair used computers to distribute to families and organizations, and on the other day they learn programming skills not taught in school. ESRA donated 30 computer screens to the program. Three 10th graders lead the group - Bar Ziv, Netanel Naftalayev and Bar Nahum. Bar Ziv and Netanel have been accepted and participate in Magshimim - http://www.rashi.org.il/magshimim-cyber-program - a highly select program which prepares Israeli teens for cyber units in Zahal and for careers in hi-tech.
The three leaders are preparing the 8th and 9th graders for acceptance to Magshimim.
The English Ambassadors is a new leadership department in the SYL. Presently there are 13 ninth and tenth graders who lead the group and 20 eighth graders who have joined the program.
Their goal is to improve their English communication skills, recruit and tutor new members, establish connections with Jewish communities abroad, participate in delegations with the partner communities in NJ, JLGB and Camp Szarvas, Hungary, and field a competitive team to participate in the Model UN, a student-led simulation of the United Nations that is held in Israel at the American International School in Even Yehuda. They also engage in debate and conflict resolution in English. Both the English Ambassadors and the Computer Department leaders will plan and instruct in the annual summer leadership certification Seminar from July 24-26.
Herb is very proud of this group, especially because the leaders understand and practise self-help and create opportunities without waiting for the help that may never come, especially in Sderot.
Herb’s calling card reads "connecting and enabling young people''. He strongly believes in the former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' adage: ''A good leader creates followers; a great leader creates leaders.''
Herb was born and brought up in a tough, mixed neighborhood in the Dorchester section of Boston. Three families lived in a three decker - the brothers on the first and third floor, and the sister and most important "Bobbi" on the middle floor.
Herb had a good Jewish and Hebrew skills education, so when he visited Israel for the first time as a college sophomore, he could speak Hebrew and enjoyed hanging out and coaching the young kids in basketball. Everyone on the kibbutz told him that he should come to Israel, study
at Wingate, and play basketball.
After his junior year, he packed his bags and informed the people at Wingate that he HAD ARRIVED to be the first American to study there. He played for Maccabi Haifa in the top league for a not very successful half season, and was the point guard on Wingate's competition team. He was having the time of his life and looked forward to another exciting year. However, Uncle Sam had other ideas, and under threat of prison, heavy fines and distraught parents, Herb returned home to the US and enlisted in the army.
July 14 1970: Herb returns home “in one piece” from Vietnam
During the next four years, and with the “Kadosh Baruch Hu” overseeing and interceding at critical junctures, Herb returned home, and his parents could then sleep at night. Within four years, he managed to successfully complete officer candidate school, rise to the rank of Captain, learn Thai at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, serve in the Green Berets as the executive officer on a special forces A team in Okinawa, and finish with a combat duty tour in Vietnam as an advisor to the Thai troops fighting there.
Herb resumed his education. After finishing his Master’s degree and beginning his Doctorate at the University of New Mexico, he made aliyah to Kiryat Shmona in 1975. It was then under frequent rocket bombardment from Lebanon. He taught English and coached basketball.
After two and a half years, Zahal decided that he was essential to the national defense, and Herb ended up serving for one year as a combat fitness training officer at the Wingate base.
During that time he met Ruti, the love of his life. Together they have four children and ten grandchildren.
Over the next 30 years Herb held three major professional positions:
- Municipal Sports Director of Ramat Hasharon
- Sports Director of the YJCC of Bergen County, where he created the Israeli Sports Challenge, a unique Israel Experience program for teens
- Youth at Risk Director in Alfei Menashe. He retired in 2010.
Senior leaders organizing and planning the summer leadership seminar
After ten intensive and productive years in Sderot, Herb believes that there is enough infrastructure and support in Sderot to sustain the SYL, and to continue the computer project and the English Ambassadors.
Sderot is famous for the generation of musicians who came out of Sderot before the rockets. The new goal will be to create a generation of musicians who remain in Sderot!
Mike and I have been friends with Herb for a long time. I have asked him to be part of a new ESRA branch which I am forming and he has pledged to help me in any way he can.
Herb is certain that ESRA can make a unique and meaningful contribution to increasing the English literacy level in Sderot. Four summers ago, Lola Katz ran a very effective three-day workshop with nine of the young leaders, all of whom remember it well and still talk about it. Herb would like to work with a group of motivated English speakers to mentor an ever- increasing number of Sderot teens to help them achieve a high level of proficiency in English communication.
Herb believes that volunteers from ESRA could greatly enrich youth through distance learning, mentoring, and organizing workshops in the center of the country as well as in Sderot.